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Russia and the West Speak About NATO Enlargement

Prague, May 30 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin yesterday reiterated his concern over NATO's plans to expand in the East.

Speaking in Moscow at a meeting of top Russian generals, Yeltsin said that these plans create a security problem for Russia. But he has stopped short of expressing total opposition, concentrating instead on the need to modernize Russia's military forces.

German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel told reporters in Bonn yesterday that Moscow's fears were unjustified. He confirmed that the German government insists on NATO's eastward expansion, despite Moscow's resistance. But Kinkel was also quick to call for a "special dialogue" between the West and Moscow to smooth differences over enlargement.

Britain too has expressed support for NATO's plans to enlarge eastward, provided that the alliance builds close ties to Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said yesterday in Washington that "new members will be admitted." But he also said that the process of enlargement should go hand in hand with the creation of a "much more intimate relationship" with Russia and the new post-Soviet states than that offered now by the Partnership for Peace program.

In the meantime, U.S. Senator and presidential contender Bob Dole was reported to be set to introduce legislation calling for early acceptance of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into NATO.

Speaking on behalf of the European Union (EU), Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini said yesterday in Rome that European security can be achieved only through cooperation of all European countries, including Russia. He also said that bringing Russia into an international community is an "essential priority" for Europe. Italy currently chairs the EU.

Also in Rome, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov said in an interview with an Italian newspaper ("Corriere della Sera," May 28) he had told the Pope that while "Russia is not setting any veto on Poland's accession to NATO, it is entitled to think about its own interests." Poland, along with the Czech Republic and Hungary, is a leading candidate for early membership

If nothing else, this suggests that Moscow may have tacitly reconciled itself to the inevitability of NATO's expansion. Now the main issue for Moscow seems to be what could be obtained in a compensatory deal.

That much was hinted at by a "high-ranking" Russian Foreign Ministry official (unnamed), who was reported yesterday by the Russian news agency, Interfax, to have said that Moscow might be prepared to make concessions on NATO's enlargement plans.

According to the report, the official suggested that Moscow was strongly opposed to the movement of NATO's military infrastructure toward Russia's western borders. He also was reported to have said that Moscow "cannot agree" to the integration of "Ukraine and so on" into the western alliance.

The alliance has not decided yet which countries would be invited to join, when this is to be done and under what conditions. The decision may be made public at the NATO annual foreign ministers meeting in December.

Meanwhile, NATO foreign ministers and the North Atlantic Cooperation Council meet next week (June 3-4) in Berlin to discuss the alliance's role in Bosnia, its partnership with Russia and Ukraine and its plans for eastward expansion.

The NATO ministers will also meet in Berlin with Primakov, who requested the session to discuss Moscow's views on European security and its relations with the alliance.

The Berlin meeting has been dubbed as a major step toward creating a "new NATO," as the alliance changes its mission from defending the West from communist threats to building bridges toward the East. Some observers say the meeting might offer Russia something akin to a cooperation charter, laying down foundations for future friendly relations.